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Well-being as a measure of a country’s success.



One key paper we recommend

Papers on the link between wealth and well being

A practical exercise for the individual

Clinical Applications

An Old Cultural Connection

Does GNH work?


Gross Domestic Product [GDP] is used in many governments and societies as an indicator of how well a country is doing. This is reflected in media reports of "economic doom," "misery," and "tough times," in recent years as economic growth has slowed drastically in recent years. But economic statistics may not have all the answers when it comes to a country's success.

As individuals we seek happiness, so does it make sense to seek happiness as a nation as well? The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) provides an intruiging alternative to the pursuit of money.

The concept is most likely to have originated in the mysterious Kingdom of Bhutan.

This tiny country, virtually untouched by tourism or outside (particularly Western) influences, is bordered by the Himalayas, China and India; and both its physical isolation from other countries as well as its strong spiritual, Buddhist traditions, make it a country which places little value on ideals such as economic strength and materialism.

Central to the ideology ofthe governance of Bhutan is that of Gross National Happiness. The first known instance of this concept being discussed in governance policy originates in Bhutan's legal code from its unification in 1729, stating that the government has no purpose if it can not promote the happiness of their people.

In 1972 the King decided that national happiness was more important than economic production, leading to it being written in the country’s constitution that the country will pursue the development of overall happiness, in terms of both material and spiritual development. [1]

The concept is further explained in this short video:

Bhutan's idea of national happiness is centred on many main ideas from Bhuddism, with emphases placed on not only individual happiness but collective happiness, spirituality, and caring for the environment.

Bhutan's beautful scenery is well looked after due to environmental care being a central factor of GNH policy

In recent years, other countries have begun to take notice of measuring the happiness of its people rather than using solely econmic measures to guage success. National wellbeing was recently discussed in the United Nations, leading to a number of member countries agreeing to use the happiness of their people, as well as their currently used measures, as an indicator of their progress and development. [2]

National happiness also captured the imagination of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who pledged to conduct a survey of his country's happiness upon his election in 2010.

Diener (2000) Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index, American Psychologist, 55, 34-53 [3]

Why? –

Ed Diener is a highly regarded Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. He has published a number of articles regarding ways that subjective well-being (SWB) can be measured, and how this could be applied to a national index measuring the overall well-being of nations.

Ed Diener (webpage:

Although slightly out of date, the article provides an interesting overview of the components of SWB and how it could be used to track the happiness of nations over time.Ways it can be defined and measured, the importance of adaptation, goals and temperament towards our feelings of well-being, and how culture influences feelings of well-being are included. The article also contains description of a number of studies on SWB. The main points from the article are explained here:

Defining and Measuring SWB

- There are a number of separate components of SWB: life satisfaction (global judgements of one’s own life), satisfaction with important domains eg. work, positive affect, and low levels of negative affect.

- Some psychometric scales are used to measure well-being, such as the PANAS (Positive and Negative Affect Scale) and the Satisfaction with Life Scale. However there are new ways of measuring well-being, such as the naturalistic experience-sampling method (ESM), where participants’ well-being is measured at random moments in their everyday lives over a period of a few weeks. Diener suggests that a variety of measures should be used in combination to provide a more accurate picture of SWB.

- Diener also suggests that additional measures should be used, such as physiological measures or memory/reaction time tests eg. respondents could be asked to record as many positive or negative events from their lives in a short space of time, with more negative recall pointing towards a more negative frame of mind.

- Positive and negative affect should be measured separately. We can gain different conclusions about why someone experiences more of a particular affect, and the consequences of this.

- Frequency and not intensity of positive emotions is a better predictor of well-being. Intense positive emotion are rare, and happy people tend to report mild to moderate positive emotions most of the time.

Processes Underlying SWB: Adaptation, Goals and Temperament

- Brickman and Campbell (1971) [4] proposed the “hedonic treadmill” theory; as they rise in accomplishment and gain more material possessions, their expectations rise. However, they quickly adapt to this new level and their happiness levels dip. Also, when people encounter misfortune their happiness drops, but they adapt to this and their happiness levels return to baseline.

Hedonic Treadmill Explained

Various studies support this theory.

- The theory has been refined in some ways. For example, people may not adapt back to baseline mood, but instead return to a more positive set point – humans more likely to feel pleasant affect if nothing bad is happening. Also, the baseline level of happiness people return to is based on temperament – personality appears to be a strong predictor of long-term SWB.

- However, Diener suggests that people do not adapt to all circumstances. For example, significant differences in the SWB of countries even though there has been time for people to adapt to the conditions of their society.

National and Cultural Patterns of SWB

- Wealthier nations have higher levels of SWB on average. This could be explained by the fact that basic human needs and rights are more likely to be met.

- However, there are some countries that are unexpectedly high or low in SWB after controlling for income. Brazil, Chile and Argentina had higher SWB levels than predicted by their wealth, and some Eastern European countries had lower SWB despite having higher incomes.

- Whether a nation is predominantly individualistic or collectivist appears to have a marked effect on people’s values and goals. Differences in the importance of factors that are relevant to life satisfaction have been found across cultures

The Importance of a National Index to Measure SWB

Diener suggests that scientifically measuring the SWB of nations is important for a number of reasons:

- Policies could be judged by how they influence happiness

- Wellbeing is not totally based on inborn temperament, so a national index may shed light on ways in which SWB could be increased.

- A national index would inform materialist societies about the importance of balance. Close relationships, meaningful activities and recreation are more important for overall wellbeing than gaining more money and possessions.

There has been much research into the link between wealth and happiness and there effect on one another. In a paper in 2008, Dunn et al [6]hypothesized that spending money on other people would make a more positive impact on peoples happiness than spending there money on themselves. According to the data they produced it was found that spending more of one ’ s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Also they had some participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others and these participants experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.

Diener and Diener in 1995 [5] stated that Universal human values are needs such as happiness, social order, and social justice. They stated that the wealth of a the nation you live in had a positive correlation, thus indicating a higher quality of life in wealthier nations. According to Diener and Diener this means that a poorer person living in a wealthy nation could have more happiness than a wealthier person living in a poor nation .

According to a study in 2004 by Luttmer [7] “lagging behind the Joneses” can make you feel worse . The paper found that after controlling for an individual's own income, having a neighbour who earned more was actually associated with lower levels of self-reported happiness.

While the papers themselves do not catagorially state that the obtainment of wealth should not be used as a factor in measuring a persons happiness, they do suggest that the distrobution and realitive nature of wealth in comparrison to ones neighbours or the country one is resident in, does directly influence a persons own level of happiness or well being.

Bergheim (2006) Measures of Well-being: There is more to it than GDP [8]

This paper is a report giving an overview on the limitations of GDP and how various countries are attempting to measure well-being. There are useful graphs in the report comparing measures such as the Human Development Index (HDI), Weighted Index of Social Progress (WISP) and Happy Planet Index (HPI; in various countries. The report also contains ideas for happiness-boosting activities taken from Lyubomirsky (2005)[9], and the affect of activities/time spent doing them in a sample of Texas women , taken from Kahneman (2004)[10]. Ideas are also given for policies that could be implemented to go some way towards increasing wellbeing, although some of these are vague/obvious and may not be realistic in a lot of countries:

Ø Measure well-being: To know what is important and to be able to influence it, societies have to measure well-being, happiness and their components.

Ø Reduce unemployment: Unemployment has a major negative effect on well-being for those directly affected and for all other citizens.

Ø Foster happiness -boosting use of time: People tend to work too much because they overestimate the impact of income on happiness. Taxing income improves work-life balances, although it is unlikely that the optimal tax rate lies above those in continental Europe.

Ø Strengthen civil society and active citizenship, participation and engagement: Foster interaction among friends and family; contain geographic relocation, which hurts social interaction with friends and neighbours.

Ø Limit materialistic advertisement: Research shows that people who watch a lot of TV feel poorer. Comparison with the pretty, successful, and happy but artificial individuals in commercials makes one’s own weaknesses visible – especially for children and teenagers. Sweden has banned advertisements targeted at children below 12 years of age.

Ø Focus the health sector on complete health: The WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This includes a stronger focus on mental illness and on longevity.

Diener, Ed, Diener, Marissa & Diener, Carol (1995) Factors Predicting the Subjective Well-Being of Nations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 851-864 [5]


This study looks at how various national characteristics correlate with the subjective well-being of 55 countries.


National surveys, probability surveys and a sample taken from a large college student survey were used to observe how national characteristics correlated with SWB.


It was found that higher levels of income, equality and human rights were most strongly correlated with SWB. The results suggest that developed countries have higher SWB than less developed societies. Individualistic societies also tended to report higher SWB, which Diener et al. suggest may be to do with freedom to pursue personal goals. Another interesting finding was that cultural homogeneity (nation of people sharing the same language, level of wealth, culture and religion) did not relate to higher SWB. The authors suggest that cultural homogeneity may make a nation less varied and interesting.

Bates, Winton (2009) Gross National Happiness. Asian-Pacific Economic Literature, 23(2), 1-16 [11]

This article takes a more balanced view of SWB as a national index, instead of proposing that GDP should definitely be replaced by GNH. Bates begins by discussing whether striving for the happiness of a country’s citizens is the most important objective for national governments. He then looks at the pros and cons of current accounting measures that are used. The difficulties involved with measuring subjective well-being are discussed, and the measures that are already used by some countries to determine overall well-being. Bates also discusses how the GNH index is applied in Bhutan, and finally he comes to the conclusion that a range of indicators should be used to look at the well-being of nations instead of relying on one measure.

In order for an individual to assess their own mental wellbeing compared with national averages in the UK, the NHS created a short quiz [12] consisting of 14 questions based on The Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS) .

Once you have your result, the NHS recommends the following 5 steps to improve mental wellbeing [13] -

  • Connect: Connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.

  • Be active: You don't have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling or play a game of football. Find the activity that you enjoy, and make it a part of your life.

  • Keep learning: Learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. So why not sign up for that cooking course, start learning to play a musical instrument, or figure out how to fix your bike?

  • Give to others: Even the smallest act can count, whether it's a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.

  • Take notice: Be more aware of the present moment, including your feelings and thoughts, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”, and it can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges.


Gross National Happiness consists of nine domains to encompass its holistic values. One of these domains is psychological well-being. [14] To achieve this in Bhutan, school children are expected to practice daily meditation sessions of mindfulness. [15]

A meditation session at a Bhutan school

The Buddhist concept of mindfulness has been developed in clinical psychology over the last forty years. [16] There have been slight variations in the definition of mindfulness in Psychology and some of these include

· A kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is. [17]

· bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis. [18]

· paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. [18]

Some of the programs to base their therapies on mindfulness are

  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy [19]

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a therapy used to reduce the chances of relapse into depression. It uses the traditional cognitive behavioural strategies but also incorporates mindfulness.

  • Acceptance and commitment therapy [20]

Acceptance and commitment therapy uses a mixture if acceptance, commitment and behaviour strategies.

  • Dialectical behaviour therapy [21]

Dialectic Behaviour therapy (DBT) was developed my Marsha Linehan to help people with Borderline personality disorder (BPD). As well as acceptance and cognitive behavioural therapy, DBT also incorporates mindfulness.

Others therapies include Morita therapy, Adaption Practice, Mindfulness-based stress reduction, Hakomi, and Internal Family Systems Therapy. [22]

The emphasis on well-being can be traced back to Maori philosophy. The Maori who originated from eastern Polynesia, and arrived in New Zealand around 1300AD [23] , have a philosophy called Hauora that is based on health and well-being. This is unique to New Zealand. [24]

The Hauora is made up of four dimensions and has been compared to the four walls of a whare. [25] A whare is a Maori community house and a place for meeting. [26]



Tānenuiarangi, the wharenui at Waipapa marae, University of Auckland, New Zealand. [26]

The four walls represent four dimensions that are needed for strength and stability.

  • Taha Tinana - Physical Wellbeing - health
  • Taha Hinengaro - Mental & Emotional wellbeing - self-confidence
  • Taha Whanau - Social Wellbeing - self-esteem
  • Taha Wairua - Spiritual wellbeing - personal beliefs [25]

In recent years the Hauora has been integrated into schools in New Zealand. Their aim is to hopefully enhance the children’s understanding and appreciation of the importance of well-being. [25] [27]

So does governments shifting their focus from constant economic growth onto the growth of subjective wellbeing result in nations of shiny happy people?

While increasing happiness is a concept which would appeal to many, it has limited applications in the real world.

Bhutan official report its widespread success reflected in the overall high levels of happiness among their people. However there are some possible problems with accepting Bhutan’s word for it. The kingdom itself is very secretive and there is little empirical evidence available for the outside world to use to analyse whether it is truly successful. Bhutan may present itself as a blissful country but there are some possible indicators of hidden problems such as the high levels of acceptance of domestic violence among the country’s women, and possible corruption with the suspected deportation of protesters against the monarchy. [28]

There may also be problems with the application of the concept to western countries, with Bhutan’s definition of happiness markedly different from that of other countries, as stated in the country’s constitution. Their approach to happiness is described as more multi-dimensional, compared to the West’s view of happiness. In Western, individualistic societies, materialism is rife and the idea of happiness may be difficult for many to separate from economic standards.

It may be possible that happiness data does not tell us much that is useful to us, for example, David Cameron's Happiness Survey of the UK, as discussed in the History section above, concluded that most people are fairly happy and that people were most likely to be depressed if the were long-term unempoyed. These results result which was scorned by some in the media as unsurprising and not very informative, as well as a waste of public money. [29]

As well as these problems relating to specific countrys' uses of subjective wellbeing measures, overall, the application of replacing GDP with subjective wellbeing measures is difficult, as discussed in this recent article in the real-world economics review. [30] Its main points concern problems in how happiness data is sampled in most countries, and the article demonstrates how data which claims to display a country’s happiness levels are as likely to come about by chance as they are from the actual happiness levels being present in the population. It also demonstrates how even a large scale increase in overall societal happiness would be very unlikely to be reflected as such in statistical data. The article concludes that actual happiness data tells us very little at all, and that subjective well-being is not enough to guide government decision making, and is certainly not a robust enough concept by itself to replace GDP.

[1] Ura, K., Alkire, S,Zangmo, T and Wangdi, K (2010) A Short Guide To GrossNational Happiness Index, TheCenter For Bhutan Studies, accessed at on24.01.13


[3] Diener, Ed."Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for anational index." American psychologist 55.1 (2000): 34

[4] Brickman, Philip and D.T. Campbell, 1971, Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society. in M.H. Appley (ed.), Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium, New York: Academic Press.

[5] Diener, Ed, Diener, Marissa & Diener, Carol (1995) Factors Predicting the Subjective Well-Being of Nations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 851-864

[6] Dunn, E. W. et al. (2008) Spending money on others promotes happiness, Science 319, 1687

[7] Luttmer, Erzo FP. Neighbors as negatives: Relative earnings and well-being. No. w10667. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2004.

[8] Bergheim (2006) Measures of Well-being: There is more to it than GDP, retrieved at:

[9] Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

[10] Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N. and Stone, A. A. (2006) A Survey Method For Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method, Science, 306, 1776-1780

[11] Bates, W. (2009) Gross National Happiness. Asian-Pacific Economic Literature, 23(2), 1-16

[12] (Retrieved 12/2/13)

[13] (Retrieved 12/2/13)

[14] retrieved 27th Jan. 2013

[15] Retrieved 27th January 2013

[16] Retrieved 27th January 2013

[17] Bishop, S., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N., Carmody, J., Segal, Z., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D. and Devins, G. (2004). “Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition”. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230-241.

[18] Baer, R. (2003) “ Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review”. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125-143.

[19] De Raedt, R., Baert, S., Demeyer, I., Goeleven, E., Raes, A., Visser, A., Wysmans, M., Jansen, E., Schacht, R., Van Aalderen, J. and Speckens, A. (2012). “Changes in Attentional Processing of Emotional Information Following Mindfulness- Based Cognitive Therapy in People with a History of Depression: Towards an Open Attention for all Emotional Experiences”. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36, 612-620.

[20] Twohig, M. (2012 ) “Introduction: The Basics of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 19, 499-507

[21] Linehan, M. (1993) Cognitive- Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: The Guildford Press.

[22] Retrieved 29th January 2013.

[23] New Scientist Webpage: Rat remains help date New Zealand's colonisation. Retrieved 27th January 2013

[24] Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI) – The Online Learning Centre Retrieved 27th January 2013

[25] Retrieved 27th January 2013

[26] Retrieved 27th January 2013.

[27] Heaton, Sharyn; Tahu, Kai; Ra ngitane, Muaupoko; Arawa, Te (2011). “The co-opting of hauora into curricula”. Curriculum matters, 7, 99-117.



[30] 2. Johns, H. and Oremrod, P. (2008) The Unhappy Thing About Happiness Economics, Real-World Economics Review, 46, 139-146

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